Got a question? What’s next?

I wrote a few weeks ago about phrasing research questions and did so in a fairly generic way.  I didn’t touch on how you find a good research question, a problem worth working on.

Research can be incremental, working carefully through possibilities and adding to the sum of knowledge about a specific sub-field.  For example, synthesizing all molecules with 10 carbon atoms and an amine (NH2) group. We’d learn quite a bit about synthesis by attempting this, and contribute some new synthetic procedures for specific compounds to the field of synthetic chemistry.  Once we’d finished that task, we could synthesise all molecules with 11 carbon atoms an amine group.  There is a reasonable chance that this work could be published, particularly if some of those amines were ‘new to science’ (never reported in literature before), but it wouldn’t and shouldn’t be a particularly high impact publication.  Repetitive reuse of the same techniques to produce subtly different results is not the stuff of blockbuster discoveries.

The stuff of blockbuster discoveries is making a leap from our current understanding of a problem into the unknown.  By space I mean an area in which little research to date has been done.  A good way to visualize this for synthetic chemistry is to take a look at Grzybowski et al. Nature Chemistry 2009 (1) 31 (doi:10.1038/nchem.136).  This perspective article describes visualising known compounds as a network, starting with simple compounds as nodes, and connecting them by synthetic steps.   The result is a 3D representation of synthetic chemicals and routes to them. Some areas are intensively researched and represented as dense areas on the map.  Other areas are relatively empty and may either represent an under researched area of synthetic chemistry, or a frontier of synthesis where no one has yet found a route in.  That’s the kind of space you want to find if you’re into big discoveries.

A Dandelion Clock – network like in structure! Source

Perhaps it is more difficult now to find those spaces to research in – the low hanging fruits of chemistry have been picked, and the problems are increasingly complex, sometimes with increasingly obscure solutions.  If you could visualise your sub-field as a 3D map, where would your research be?  Would it be in a densely populated area, constantly trying to avoid colliding with someone else’s efforts? Or would it be out in the voids, breaking new ground?  You don’t need to find a big space, just one that is relevant and as yet overlooked.

I don’t mean to imply that incremental research is not as worthy as big leaps.  Quite the contrary actually.   Without patient and diligent efforts to syntheses many libraries of compounds based on a steroid or antibiotic core structure, we wouldn’t have many of the medicines we take for granted.  Without concerted effort to refine and improve existing chemical processes, we wouldn’t have many of the bulk  chemical feed stocks so critical for synthesising advanced materials such as polymers.

The only way you can find those research problems is to read well in the area you are interested in, and read fairly well across the field.  What have people already done?  Why did they do it that way?  Sometimes the ideas just jump out at you when you are least expecting them!